Scotch 101

A whisky primer for the uninitiated


Make no mistake, it's coming. Even if you've long steered clear of that intimidating wall of Glenlivets and Glenfiddiches and Laphroaigs, the day will come when you will require a glass of Scotch. It's an inevitability in every well-rounded human life. It may come after a major victory or a crushing blow; it may arise quietly in the middle of an introspective reverie. Whatever shape it takes, when the moment comes, you will crave a glass of rich, smoky gravitas -- and then, my friend, you will be a Scotch drinker.

To prepare for the day you'll want to settle in with a single malt, start here with our quick breakdown of the world's most serious spirit.
1.) Scotch whisky comes from Scotland (and it's spelled without an "e"). Period. If it's not distilled and aged for three years or longer in Scotland, it's not Scotch. (But it might be bourbon.)

2.) Scotland's malt whiskies are grouped geographically, and the Scotch produced in each region tends to share a set of distinct flavor characteristics.

Lowland Malt Whisky: Made south of a boundary drawn from Dundee to Greenrock, traditionally known for lighter-styled single malts (the "Lowland ladies").

Highland Malt Whisky: Made north of the boundary, the whiskies made in this area have wide range of characteristics, but are largely dry, spicy, and peat-inflected.

Speyside Malt Whisky: Technically a sub-region of Highland malt whiskies, Speyside Scotch is made from distilleries in and around the valley of the River Spey. They're known for their complexity, smokiness, and elegant intensity.

Islay Malt Whisky: Made on the island of Islay ("eye-luh"), these whiskies tend to have (not surprisingly) briney, tangy notes.

3.) "Single malt" whisky is just as it sounds -- it's distilled from malted barley at a single distillery. At the other extreme is blended whisky, which combines as many as 50 malt whiskies with grain whisky.

4.) The ingredients it takes to make Scotch are simple -- barley, water, and yeast -- but the process by which they are combined to create over two thousand different variations of whisky is quite complex. Here are the basics:

- The barley is "malted," which means it's soaked in water for 2 to 3 days, and then dried and allowed to "germinate," a process during which the barley produces enzymes that are crucial in converting the grain's starch into the sugar necessary for fermentation.

- To stop the germination process, the barley is then heated -- it's this point in the process where a producer can introduce peat smoke that will influence the flavor of the whisky.

- The barley is then ground and mixed with hot water and yeast and is allowed to ferment; the resulting liquid goes into a still, or a series of stills, until the producer attains the desired proof.

- The final product is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, though most Scotch matures for at least five years or longer before hitting the shelves.

5.) There are a number of ways to mix Scotch, but when you're first starting out (and especially if you've got a really nice bottle on hand), don't. Try your single malt served straight up with either a single ice cube or a splash of water, an addition which will help open up the spirit's complex flavors.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: termarnat
    647151 1

    I am a diehard 'SCOTCH" lover. If I could afford it, i would be stocking up on 'singletons' but the budget will not allow.
    I was presented with a 'GLENMORANGIE' Traditional 100 proof and it is the nectar of the God's.

    Have no idea as to price but would love to be able to get more.

    Nov 20, 2010 at 8:32 PM

  • Snooth User: TCombel
    326554 2

    I'm no Scotch traditionalist. I like what The Balvenie does with their 17 year stuff like rum cask and madeira cask aging. Mmmm.

    Nov 20, 2010 at 10:02 PM

  • Snooth User: lemma12
    184051 1

    The Balvenie Double Wood is one of my favorites. Good everyday whisky.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 1:56 AM

  • Snooth User: lvm
    473926 1

    For an Islay malt with less peat and iodine try Bruichladdich.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 3:37 AM

  • forget the ice. keep your favourite tumbler in the fridge, just pour and enjoy.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 6:13 AM

  • Snooth User: NewDog
    477139 3

    Try a new(ish) one that attempts to replicate what Scotch was before the English screwed it all up with their girly blends.

    Non chill-filtered and "cloudy but fine".

    Arbalour A'bundha - a scotch that sits in the glass and demands the word "sir" before a sip is permitted. The NCO of the Scotch army!

    Nov 21, 2010 at 6:33 AM

  • Snooth User: jsmattes
    637571 6

    I've had a few bottles of Cask strength single's 117-120 proof, learned from a distiller to properly enjoy it is to mix equal parts water and your single of choice, mine happens to be Acqua Panna and Talisker anniversary at the moment.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 7:52 AM

  • Snooth User: Creinauer
    573355 21

    @TCombel--You mentioned budgetary constraints above. Have you tried any of the blends? They are a bit less expensive, but don't let that convince you that they are cheap and poorly crafted (though some are). There are two that I especially love: Johnnie Walker (black or blue label) and, the king of all scotch blends, Te Bheag. Te Bheag is a truly wonderful blend. I am a single malt drinker myself and regularly pass over most blends, but Te Bheag really is exquisitely crafted. I never turn my nose up at a dram of that spirit.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 8:57 AM

  • Snooth User: Doc Phil
    628957 1

    If you have not tried Arbalour A'bundha , which a small batch scotch that comes at 59.8 percent alcohol, just under the 120 proof limit, then you are missing the experience of a lifetime. This is truly a sipping whiskey, to be enjoyed slowly across the tongue to savour its sweetness and warmth. Drink it any other way, and you will feel chastised.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 10:15 AM

  • Snooth User: Flee
    277015 1

    Some years ago, I was traveiling with a friend in Scotland. His intent was to discover the Best Single Malt.. To this point in my life, Scotch was not my favoured libation. He took me to lunch in a Pub, and said he had discovered the Best Scotch. And bought me a dram. THE MACALLAN! The I knew what Scotch was all about.
    Frank Lee

    Nov 21, 2010 at 11:25 AM

  • Snooth User: celticman
    591549 24

    I see you have recipes for scotch. As Edward Heath said if somone asks for a malt with a mixer give him the cheapest rubbish in the house. He won't know the difference. You ONLY mix scotch whisky with water or a little ice. Neat is good,
    For something slightly different try a Welsh single malt, Penderryn. Made in the Welsh mountains using Welsh water and Brains beer mash!

    Nov 21, 2010 at 11:32 AM

  • Snooth User: Hareton
    484868 15

    Love scotch...notably 14 year old Scapa from the Orkney islands. The price was right tasted far more expensive than I paid. However, they have since stopped production in lieu of an older and far more expensive bottle...damn them! (I bought two and gave one to my I am now have only 1/3 of a bottle left, I am regretting my kindness!)

    Nov 21, 2010 at 12:56 PM

  • Snooth User: juliusc91
    134886 5

    As I wake up each morning and wonder WHY I should put both my feet on the floor I find precious few reasons. Escaping Jordans morning breath? Yes. Scotch. It's too early to drink it but people it is NEVER too early to think about it. Or the possibility I may happen across Hugh Jackman and be able to give him the present I've been holding for him.......BAM!

    Dr. Cox

    Nov 21, 2010 at 2:03 PM

  • Snooth User: andiwine
    296274 1

    Springbank for me, the older the better. But I had the 1991 Glenrothes the other night and all I can say is that it was as smooth as a baby's ass! Heaven! Oh Yeah, neat please-water back.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 2:32 PM

  • Snooth User: louis1
    Hand of Snooth
    87525 24

    there's a great scotch selection here:

    Nov 21, 2010 at 3:33 PM

  • Snooth User: Rossired
    451720 10

    My fave...Oban!!....a big ice cube or ball with plenty of surface area it will melt off and 'open' the flavors quite nicely and fairly quickly. watch carefully for the beautiful patterns as the two liquids interact. Neat.. will cheat... you of the true flavors that will unfold. OH and if it suites you go ahead and wear that smoking jacket, with the wonderful Oban works!!!

    Nov 21, 2010 at 4:19 PM

  • Snooth User: Rossired
    451720 10 will want to wear a smoking jacket after you taste this gem.
    Do- One piece of very large ice and just watch as the two liquids interact, beautiful!
    Don't- Neat..will of the wonderful complex flavours that will open, the metamorphesis is magic. Worth the splurge!

    Nov 21, 2010 at 4:24 PM

  • Snooth User: Rossired
    451720 10


    Nov 21, 2010 at 4:24 PM

  • There is a mystery here in Australia with the blended whiskys - Many of them taste nothing like the same brands purchased overseas

    Someone should look into this - it has resulted in Australians often preferring Bourbon. The problem is worse when they are bottled in Australia but still bad when they are bottled in Scotland . We simply are often getting an inferior product and we all know we are. Too many people bring the same labels in from overseas purchased abroad in duty free shops for us not to know!

    As for the malts - the prices here are disgraceful which is why almost no-one buys them

    They are fine whiskys for sure but at that price forget it. The prices need to be halved at the very least.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 4:47 PM

  • Snooth User: rosesRred
    584100 23

    One word for you all....Talisker.

    If you like it cool or cold, try whiskey stones. They actually work, and they do not water down the goodness.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 4:49 PM

  • Snooth User: celticman
    591549 24

    Whiskey is not whisky! but what are these stones?. Talisker is fab - if you like it try Laphroaig, this was sold during American prohibition. On prescription cuz the Scots convinced the US administration it was medicine heh heh. For a great blend try Cambelltown.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 5:11 PM

  • Snooth User: rosesRred
    584100 23

    Loved Laphroaig. Got a bottle for Christmas last year. It didn't make it long...yes, medicine indeed. For the soul. What is this Cambelltown? Can I get it here in US?

    Nov 21, 2010 at 5:15 PM

  • Bring on the Glenrothes, it's an excellent example of the Speyside whiskies and one of the most highly sought after by Master Blenders.
    I like that they don't try to stick to a schedule, like 10, 12, 15 yr bottlings and instead bottle a vintage when the taster decides it's ready. I have several of the vintage editions- 1972, 1975, 1985, 1987, 1991, 1994. Any of the 1970 editions are incredible, but they are becoming rare and the prices are incredible too. After those I prefer the 87 then the 85 and 91. I haven't tried the 94 yet. One of the most inexpensive Glenrothes, the Special Reserve, is a blend of vintages, quite acceptable and maybe comparable to Johnny Walker Gold.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 5:47 PM

  • I like mine neat, but cold. Ergo, I keep it in the freezer. Pour add a few drops of water and enjoy.

    Nov 21, 2010 at 5:47 PM

  • Snooth User: cepitt7
    178908 1

    Bruichladdich for me. I'm into Laddie Classic right now and it is amazing!

    Nov 21, 2010 at 8:54 PM

  • Snooth User: wineman8
    306938 3

    Glenmorangie Nectar D'or
    It's Glenmorangie aged in sauterne cask. . . for the 79 bucks, it truly is amazing.

    Nov 22, 2010 at 12:46 AM

  • Snooth User: KingWolf
    418931 1

    Lagavulin Single Malt is an Islay single malt Scotch whisky if you like peat-smoke aroma ... I love it ...

    Nov 22, 2010 at 6:19 AM

  • Snooth User: lgoldman
    434484 1

    i received a present from a satisfied customer -- a 25 year old Macallan -- do i wait for a really special occasion or just go for it ??

    Nov 22, 2010 at 10:53 AM

  • Snooth User: Sweetstuff
    Hand of Snooth
    139592 254

    Isn't there another region, a small one, called Campbeltown? I think there are three distilleries there now, but there were much more years back.

    IS the Arbalour A'bundha referred to above the same as the Aberlour A'bunadh that I've been enjoying?


    Nov 22, 2010 at 1:42 PM

  • Snooth User: celticman
    591549 24

    rosesRed, Campbeltown - the town produces many whiskies but there is a very nice blend called Campbeltown Loch (a loch is a lake) I live in Wales so don't know if ya can get it in the US but I'm in NYC next week so will have a look. Here is circa £16 for 75cl so should be I would have thought no more than $18-20 (your duty is much cheaper- as is everythijg outside the UK!)
    Also KingWolf mentioned Lagavulin- its the best and my favourite. But as I've said before try the only Welsh single malt that survives Penderyn (temperance movement shut down the entire Welsh whisky industry early 19 century) Chris

    Nov 22, 2010 at 1:45 PM

  • Snooth User: NewDog
    477139 3

    sweetstuff, yes it is. Apologies for spelling the distiller's name wrong. Fantastic, real sit-down-and-do-it stuff!

    Single malter - absolutely! Glenrothes - my other "best friend". And yes it's a pity that the 70's are so hard to find now (76 - so good).

    Nov 22, 2010 at 5:44 PM

  • Snooth User: Xsagaroth
    269878 1

    talisker 10 yr double matured is a very fine scotch and very reasonably priced

    Nov 22, 2010 at 5:52 PM

  • Snooth User: LuisRo69
    491913 19

    I went through my "Glennlivet phase" and then tried Macallan and Glennfidich. Believe it or not I now prefer Johnny Walker Black, Green, Gold and Blue. I do realize there's a whole world of fine Scotch out there and now, because of you guys, I won't rest 'till I try Aberlour A'bunadh and Penderryn.

    Nov 22, 2010 at 7:51 PM

  • Snooth User: LuisRo69
    491913 19

    Louis1 - Almost forgot, thanks for the excellent link.
    Singlemalter - I think it's the "Select Reserve", and thanks for the recommendations.

    Nov 22, 2010 at 8:14 PM

  • Snooth User: fibo86
    Hand of Snooth
    93589 563

    @Phillip Clarke WOW don't know where you go shopping but it seems you might be sticking to CHAINSTORES, you'll never get anything different from them.
    Try some of the independent stores like the fabulous Ultimo wine centre Sydney.
    They get stuff in that isn't available in Australia before.
    I'm going to a Springbank tasting with them on the 1st of Dec apparently we are tasting....
    Springbank 10yo
    Springbank 18yo
    Springbank 1997 batch 2
    Springbank Madeira
    Springbank PSI cask strength

    I sugest you go and check them out!.
    As for prices you need to be pointing at our government for having their hands in our wallets that are still in our pockets.

    Nov 22, 2010 at 10:45 PM

  • Snooth User: Zaratt
    251878 1

    For my part I have tasted a good number of great single-malts scotch and have to admit my preference towards "The Glenrothes". Overall, it's just an incredibly well balanced nectar that gets better with every sip, combining smoothness and muscle while providing the palate an extraordinary workout of sense and memory.

    As a matter of fact, I've savored the last few drops of a 1994 yesterday evening and still got a few ounces left over from a previous 1989 bottle.

    Mind you, not too long ago we devoured through a 18 year old Highland Park and I've got to tell you we were pleasantly surprised especially after a round of golf in the rain, how smooth it revealed itself... very pricey indeed and, if it weren't for that I would always keep a bottle nearby.

    Another discovery was a bottle of 10 year old JURA from the Isle of Jura... the lingering toffee and absolute smoothness made it quite irresistible!

    Last but not least, the bottle of Aberlour a'bunadh I had bought many moons ago I was totally convinced was purely medicinal at the time. Lately, I have ventured back and was pleasantly taken by how it had settled and offered a much more approachable demeanor about it.

    Cheers gentlemen!

    Nov 23, 2010 at 1:42 PM

  • Snooth User: celticman
    591549 24

    LuisRo69 my apologies- typo, Penderyn has one r. Google it- Made in the village of Penderyn on the edge of the Brecons. Dick Penderyn lived there of course celticman

    Nov 23, 2010 at 3:07 PM

  • Snooth User: Sweetstuff
    Hand of Snooth
    139592 254

    TO Zaratt:

    I get the same impression from my bottle of A'bunadh--when first opened it has more rubbery-reduced notes in both mouth and nose, and this dominated everything else. For you that know German wine, it was like an old-style Joh. Jos Prüm when first opened. These reduction notes in wine are from yeast autolysis and lees-aging, and perhaps they are here, too.

    When it's been opened a few days, the rubber resolves into a good deal of complexity. This might be an important phenomenon for more than this whisky.

    Anyone else notice this? jht

    Nov 23, 2010 at 8:07 PM

  • Snooth User: NewDog
    477139 3

    To Zarrat and Sweetstuff,

    A'bunadh is like that - it needs to "open", more so than many other scotches. I discovered it quite a few years ago when a customer, unsatisfied of the selection of spirits available where I was working, asked if he could "bring my own bottle down" from his room, explaining he was a rep and introducing a new product to the country.

    He was a decent bloke and offered a 'taste".

    I introduced it to another bar I was running a few years later, describing it as "sir" so the punters would show it the respect it needed. Those who took their time and allowed the scotch to open were rewarded with something rather special.

    We sold massive amounts of the stuff.

    This may be a little different to what you are alluding to, but it does serve to highlight that sometimes you just have to take some time.

    Nov 24, 2010 at 8:06 AM

  • Snooth User: sambaman
    581238 13

    @Celticman - You are absolutely right about Laphroaig. To this day I still remember the day I've tasted Laphroaig in Edinburgh... I thought it was Medicine ;-)

    Nov 24, 2010 at 11:28 AM

  • I am a newbie here and just wanna say Hi to everyone. I am Crystal from Louisiana, US.

    Nov 26, 2010 at 8:29 AM

  • Snooth User: Junelouise
    498041 12

    Balvenie 12 yr double cask..we bought 2 one litre bottles of it at the duty free shop on our cruise this past January on Carnival..couldn't believe our eyes at $ 35.00 US. It cost double that here in Canada. Our daughter lives in Edinburgh and my husband and son went with her to the distillers tastings and came home half corked! LOL There are a couple my husband enjoys, but he has a special place for the Balvenie. There are some good recommendations here. He will read up on them and see if we can find one here in Canada, or on our next trip to Scotland.

    Dec 05, 2010 at 10:30 AM

  • Snooth User: Tiger1911
    314420 1

    I have bounced around the single malt world and for my money I will take The Glenrothes. I have a bottle of 1994 that I measure out periodically. The thing I enjoy so much about Glenrothes is that there is some much variation from year to year, like wines. That being said, the quality and passion for scotch are in every bottle.

    Dec 11, 2010 at 2:04 PM

  • Snooth User: jnawrocki
    415354 45

    I like MURRAY MCDAVID's Mission Glenturret and of course the MACALLAN.

    Dec 13, 2010 at 8:36 AM

  • Snooth User: Catherine Gin
    Hand of Snooth
    592568 297

    Good news for Scotch lovers... We've just posted a story on The Classic Malts of Scotland's special-release whiskies, featuring distillers' editions from Oban, Talisker, Lagavulin and more. If you've signed up for our e-mails, it'll hit your inbox today, or check it out at

    Dec 16, 2010 at 1:45 PM

  • Snooth User: keltraine
    442883 6

    Some great, easy to get scotches:

    Aberlour A'bunadh (already mentioned here many times; batches 20/24 and especially good-every 4 yrs seem like a hit!)
    Glenfarclas 105 (one of my faves)
    Macallan Cask Strength (only one worth the $$ and it's not expensive at all)
    Lagavulin 16
    Laphroaig Quarter Cask (getting hard to find)
    Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist (aka "The Beast!)

    Some rarer but awesome stuff; usually have to order it from the UK from TWE (The Whiskey Exchange)
    Classic of Islay series (Ar1/2, Lp1, Ci1, Lg1, Br1, Pe1-3)
    Scott's Selection Longmorn-Glenlivet 33yr 1971-2004 (not many left)
    Single Malts of Scotland Caol Ila 24yr 1984/2008

    Just some examples that folks at the LA Scotch Club like at

    Dec 17, 2010 at 9:37 AM

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